A woman and a man, both in their forties, members of the same conservative Calvinistic church decide to marry. A few short months later the woman decides that marriage was a mistake and forces the man to leave. There has been no abuse and no marital infidelity. This actually happened in a good conservative church that claims to believe the Bible and holds itself out as a very conservative evangelical body. What should the church do? What should her closest friends do? What should her leaders do? How do we deal with people who want to divorce their spouse without biblical grounds contrary to the commandments of Christ and of His apostles? There is an answer and it is quite unambiguous.
For this answer we turn to Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1.This brings us to the subject of church discipline. The reformers held church discipline to one of three marks of true church. In other words, John Calvin believed that failure to practice church discipline indicated that the church was not a true church. When a Christian decides to exit their marriage, the entire Christian community is affected. Divorce is highly visible. It is not one of those sins that takes place in private. The entire community is watching. This makes divorce very problematic in the Christian community. If the Christian community does the wrong thing, the entire community sees it. This goes a long way to impact the testimony of that community AND everyone else in it. By association, we are guilty. In other words, when our church does not do the right thing or is caught up in controversy, it isn't just the reputation and testimony of the church that is in play. It is the reputation and testimony of everyone in that church. This makes divorce a very scandalous affair, not only for a church, but for the individuals in that church. If you love God and you care about your church, you will care about the behavior of the people in it. Their behavior can help or hurt your ability to maintain a godly witness to the outward community. Not only this, the kind of love that Jesus exhibited gets involved and stays involved in other people's lives. We see them sin, we respond in love to correct and help. We go after them!
Matthew 18:15-18 is the most detailed text in the entire Scripture that deals with the process for correction or what is known as the doctrine of church discipline. Jesus says that if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. Every Christian who sees another brother sin is obligated to do to that person and help them see their sin. The idea of go and show means that you need to make a case for why the actions of this person are sinful. In our case study, everyone who is aware of this woman's behavior has a godly obligation to go to her and help her see that she is sinning. That is the first step. Note that this confrontation must take place in private! Jesus commanded that we do this in private for a reason. It is an act of mercy and protection to approach the person in private. Unfortunately, the case I mentioned above has not taken this path. In fact, just the opposite has taken place. This poor lady has had supposedly Christian friends telling her she is OK, that God understands, and that her husband tricked her into marrying him to begin with. They have held that he married her for wealth even though she has none. But that is the angle they have taken. Yes, evil surmising indeed! And yes, leaders are well aware of this behavior and of the hatred and contempt they have for her husband. One pastor, when asked about this actually said, there are people in my church that hate me, so what. AMAZING! Step one is to go to the persona and help them see their sin. If they repent, you have won your brother.
Step two takes place if the person refuses to hear you. This woman has refused to hear her husband regarding the sin she is in. The next step is to take witnesses.
If the person refuses to hear the witnesses, the entire church is to be told of their behavior so that they can go to this person in love and urge them to repent. This is step three. Yes, the entire church is now informed that this person is in sin and that they are obligated to call her and visit her and urge her to turn to Christ from her sin. What happens if she still refuses to listen to the church?
Step four: let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. In other words, this person is now excluded from the Christian community because of a contumacious disposition. They have refused to repent of their sin even though they have been warned in private, by witnesses, and even by the entire church.
Isn't this unloving? Doesn't this just make things worse? What if she leaves the church? Then she will never get the help she needs. That is not for the church to decide. Jesus' instructions and commandments are clear. No one has the right to ignore the commandment of Christ. Just before this section of Scripture, Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep. This is one method of how the Shepherd goes after that one lost sheep. This is love. It is unloving and ungodly to support someone in their sin. You are never more an enemy of God than when you conspire with Satan to destroy God's children by supporting their rebellious behavior. Such a practice is evil at its core and yet, we have people doing that very thing in the name of love and mercy and grace. This is a fool's game because it places that person at odds with the very Lord they claim to serve.
Paul did not play games with hypocrisy in the church. A church that refuses to act in cases of discipline is arrogant. Paul says, you have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. He goes on to say that he has decided to deliver this person over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh in hopes that their soul might be saved. People in Corinth were actually boasting about their freedom and God's love and grace in this immoral situation. Paul then said that it only takes a little leaven to spoil the entire lump of dough. Someone will accuse us of judging if we do this. How do we answer? We quote Paul who said in 1 Cor. 5:12, Do you not judge those who are within the church? This is a rhetorical question of course. Paul's language around dealing with serious sin in the church is urgent and swift. He does not mince words.
Again in Gal. 6:1 Paul tells the saints that if anyone is caught up in a sin that the spiritual ones in the church are to go and restore that person in a spirit of gentleness, each one considering themselves so that they will not be tempted. The right attitude is critical. We are all sinners! We all sin. Not one of us is perfect! We have all failed our Lord and we do in one way or another every day. We are to go in love, not condemnation. We are to treat the person like we would treat ourselves. Our goal is not to criticize. Rather we are to confront in love and help the person see the sin and repent. This is what Christ would have us do. We are no different from anyone else. I once had a pastor tell me that his sin was different from my sin! God sees his sin differently than he does my sin. I was speechless. Anyone who knows me knows that it takes a lot to leave me speechless. Brothers and sisters, we are all sinners before and perfectly holy God. That is the reality of things. Pretending it is not true does not make it true. We all deserve the same eternal punishment but for grace, but for mercy, BUT FOR CHRIST! When we approach one another for this purpose, we must keep this in the forefront of our mind at all times. The person must get the sense that you really are trying to help them out of love, not out of a judgmental and critical spirit. Now let me say this. Some people will classify everything you say as pugnacious rhetoric when it threatens their dearly held beliefs or lifestyle. There is nothing you can do about that. Not every person is going to respond positively to your correction. True believers will eventually respond positively. Those who continue in their sin and reject admonition after admonition are only showing that their faith and commitment to Christ is suspect. Such people should be shown grace by treating them as targets for evangelism and not as true believers. This is the most loving thing in the world you could ever do for them.
The two grounds for divorce are adultery and abandonment according to Matthew 19:1-10 and 1 Cor. 7:12-15. Outside of these two reasons, no Christian has any right whatever to divorce his/her spouse. If they choose to ignore God's word on this point, the consequences should be serious. No one has the authority to circumvent the words of Christ! People who calmour about homosexual marriage and tolerate unbiblical divorce in the church are playing the hypocrite. Both ideas destroy the authority of Scripture and deviously sin against a holy God who is the designer or marriage to begin with.
The entire church corporately as well as individually are responsible to confront sin when they see it in an attempt to lovingly correct and recover those caught in its grip. They are to do so without arrogance or a self-righteous disposition knowing that they too are sinners. However, make no mistake about it: this is not just a task for pastors and elders. It is a task for everyone who is spiritually maturing in Christ. To claim we love someone while refusing to confront them with their sin is simply being disengenuous. Moreover, the allow an element of open hate to exist in situations like this is frankly inexcusable. People who engage in hate and claim to love God are liars according to John. They are still in darkness. To allow people to practice such evil without being willing to confront it and correct it is not leadership. There is nothing more cowardly than to allow evil men or evil women to have free reign in the church opposing God on the issue of divorce while remaining passively silent. God have mercy on us all and help us to understand what agape love really is.